As Covid-19 disrupted global supply chains, a decades-old technology has been given a new lease of life. 3D printing, commonly referred to as additive manufacturing (AM), has been in use since the 1980s, and although the technology has evolved rapidly in recent years, mass adoption is yet to be reached.

But now, as manufacturing leaders seek to build resilience and flexibility into their supply chains, AM could become more widespread than ever.

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“The pandemic suddenly confronted people with the actual advantages of the technology,” says Peter Leys, the executive chairman of Belgium-based AM specialist Materialise.

Since being founded in 1990 by Wilfried Vancraen, Materialise has provided software solutions and AM services across industries including healthcare, automotive, aerospace and consumer goods. Mr Leys says the company has been “preaching” for decades about the potential to decentralise production using AM.

“We are convinced that boards and production managers are really thinking of reorganising their supply chains and manufacturing lines to include 3D printing,” Mr Leys says. “Not just for the sake of including it, but for the strategic and sustainability advantages that it offers.” 

An EY survey conducted in April 2019 indicated that there has been a significant increase in the number of businesses that see AM as strategically important. Some 20% of the 900 companies surveyed planned to integrate the technology into their business, up from 4% three years earlier. Meanwhile, the percentage of businesses that had some experience in applying AM technology rose from 24% to 65%.

Covid-19 solutions

CNH Industrial, a multinational producer of various capital goods, such as agricultural machinery, engines and commercial vehicles, has been using AM during the pandemic. After Covid-19 restrictions halted shipping of replacement parts from China to their plant in Zedelgem, Belgium, the company worked with Materialise to 3D print them instead.

“AM was the fastest and most cost-effective way forward [and] was the only way to guarantee order fulfilment on time,” Luigi Neirynck, the plant director at CNH Industrial Zedelgem, said in a webinar organised by Materialise on December 3, 2020.

In the fight against Covid-19, companies across the AM industry also helped to meet the demand for personal protective equipment and critical medical devices. These devices often needed to be highly customised to meet the needs of medical professionals. “We designed, together with pulmonologists, oxygen masks that perfectly met their needs for Covid-19 issues, and went ahead and 3D printed it,” says Mr Leys. 

Strategic footprint

Materialise has a vision to use AM technology as a means to “make the world better and healthier”. It has expanded its footprint across 20 countries worldwide, including the US, France, Germany, Australia and China. 

At its headquarters in Leuven, Belgium, which hosts one of the world’s largest AM facilities, Materialise engages in rapid prototyping — the first application of AM technology. This is where a physical part, model or assembly is quickly fabricated using 3D computer-aided design.

“Rapid prototyping is an important and stable market, but not a market with lots of growth,” says Mr Leys. Materialise uses its Leuven site as a lab to test different materials and machines, to find out “the best technological fit for a specific application”.

The company decided many years ago that only one lab was needed for prototyping. But once Materialise becomes involved in a particular AM application, it builds facilities worldwide “as close as possible to the point of sale, or point of care”, in line with its vision to decentralise production. One example of this is Materialise's personalised knee guides – or 3D preoperative models of patient's knee joints that assist orthopaedic surgeons in making precise incisions – which the company produces in Belgium, Japan and the US. Meanwhile, their factory in Poland produces custom insoles for the European market and it has outsourced production for the US to its partner Superfeet.

“Strategically, this is a totally different story [from our Leuven base], as you have machines that focus on a specific application that follow the customer and the market,” explains Mr Leys. Meanwhile, for global research and development (R&D), Materialise has facilities in Malaysia, Ukraine and Germany.

“We looked for regions where there were good technical schools, and fairly strong pools of available engineers, where we could actually compete,” adds Mr Leys.

Materialise has sales offices in growth markets too, such as Shanghai, as a means to grow contacts with and offer their software to local AM machine manufacturers.

“We moved to China because there has been — and still is — significant spending by the Chinese government in AM,” clarifies Mr Leys. In 2017, the Chinese government announced a strategic plan to grow AM into a $3bn industry.

Updating manufacturing

More broadly, Mr Leys believes that the current model of producing millions of the same products in a huge factory in the pursuit of economies of scale is outdated.

“We should stop producing large volumes of goods. If we produce to stock, that puts too much weight on the limited resources on the planet,” he clarifies.

But Mr Leys says implementing AM will “require an agile reorganisation of the manufacturing industry”, and does not see that the role of the manufacturer will be removed any time soon. Experts in the industry agree. 

“3D printing will not replace traditional manufacturing, but rather coexist alongside it,” says Stefana Karevska, a leading AM consultant at EY. “The technology will most likely be used for highly technical parts and in the case of supply chain vulnerability.”

More innovation needed

For Mr Leys, the fundamental utility of AM is that it helps humanity in its desire to “produce to order, not to stock”, but admits that there is still progress to be made in terms of reusing materials and reducing energy consumption.

“On the one hand, we have to disruptively change supply chains, and on the other we need continuous innovation to make the technology more sustainable,” he notes. “But if we only do one of the two, it’s not going to work.”

Ms Karevska points out that the technology is also still not accessible or cost-effective enough for some manufacturers.

“Many companies have recognised the potential of 3D printing, but have still not implemented it due to the high price of the materials and systems,” she says. “This is particularly the case in the automotive industry, which is very price sensitive,” she adds, highlighting that it is still not economically feasible to 3D print most metals.

Nonetheless, Materialise plans to continue its R&D efforts and to push for AM as a way to achieve “decentralised, personalised production to order” where possible.

“If we continue to position the technology as a key enabler to bring more sustainable and meaningful applications to the market, then we have a really bright future ahead of us,” concludes Mr Leys.

This article first appeared in the April/May print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.